By Anita Mehay

“Good here if Singaporean – not if Bangladeshi man” – Mr Olm

Mr Olm, a 22 year old Bangladeshi man came to Singapore to work. Just 4 months in, he suffered a workplace injury when his fingers no longer bend, after a heavy object landed on his hand. This means he cannot work and his only source of income is now gone. He has no alternative but to stay in Singapore, until the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) resolve his work related issues of outstanding pay and medical fees. He does not know how long this will take and TWC2 and The Cuff Road project is a lifeline for him. A place where he can get a free meal and more importantly, free advice and support.

Sadly, Mr Olm’s story is not uncommon amongst the transient workers that come to the Project. If they want the MOM to resolve their problems, they have to stay in Singapore. These men are ‘in limbo’; not able to work and not able to return home.

As a mental health researcher, I am trained and experienced in conducting interviews to evaluate a person’s mental health and emotional well-being. I interviewed a selection of the men and wanted to know more about their predicaments and the impact on their emotional wellbeing. The majority of the men had many of the key symptoms of depression. Persistent sadness and low mood, fatigue, severe headaches, ideas of unworthiness and disturbed sleep were all distressingly common. An alarming 88% of the 30 men in this sample showed signs of a clinical depression which would normally warrant intervention. This is in stark contract with the average rate of depression in Singaporeans, which is amongst the lowest in the world at 5.6%. Through further investigation, I began to unravel the reasons for this high rate of depression.

Dreams and the Reality

“To earn money to live on and send home and make a better life” – Mr Shagar

It is hard not to sympathise with these men who at first, appear quite happy. However, feelings of sadness and emptiness are revealed as I divulged into their past and the reality of life in Singapore. I listened on while they told me about their rural upbringing and falling victim to the classic ‘rags to riches’ tale largely promoted by employment agents. Singapore was the land where all their hopes, dreams and aspirations can come true.

Mr Shagar told me that he had wanted to be in the air force in Bangladesh and applied but there were no positions for someone like him. He was used to being treated differently because of his low status and poor background. He thought though, that Singapore would be different for him. That this was a land of fair treatment and justice – where hard work is rewarded. Mr Shagar came here when he was just 22 years old. He is now 30 and has not even made back the money he paid to the nefarious agents who regularly take advantage of the poor and desperate. He also still owes money to loan companies in Bangladesh that he borrowed from to come over in 2003. His family waits each month for money he sends, their only real source of income. He is managing the medical bills his boss is legally required to pay but refuses. I asked how he feels and copes with these stresses;

“No one helps me and no one understands”

He turns away slightly and tearfully announced;

“I have lost my life here in Singapore. I feel I have lost time as have been away from home, not able to earn money and I can’t do things that other people would, like get married and have children”.

Life has not turned out the way he had hoped or dreamed and he is now left to deal with the disappointment.

The importance of physical health

“My head keep pounding all day and night” – Hassan

Longstanding research has already established the link between physical health and emotional well-being. If you have poor physical health, it is likely to reduce your emotional well-being. The majority of the men (96%) who come to the Cuff Road project have suffered a physical injury at work ranging from back pain, broken digits to loss of hearing. This indicator of poor physical health already puts them at risk for depression. The immediate impact of these injuries has had a profound effect on their lives; the inability to work and the lack of income is the single biggest stress. Additional problems can include dealing with employers who are refusing to pay medical bills and managing delays in treatment and subsequent recovery can further compound their problems. High levels of stress can then hinder any physical rehabilitation and lead onto further physical health problems. These include constant headaches and general aches and pains. 56% of the sample reported experiencing physical symptoms that existed outside of their workplace injury and typified symptoms associated with high stress. Without adequate support to manage their physical health it is likely that they will experience a prolonged recovery time and deterioration in general health.

Loneliness and Boredom

“There is too much time and too much thinking about the problems” – Rasel

Limbo is an especially lonely place for these men. In a land far away from home, with no work to occupy and only their troubles keep them company. All the men I spoke to told me that boredom and loneliness was a big problem for them. These stresses and worries haunt their young and responsible minds even more at night;

“Sleep never comes. I’m thinking too much and my brain not rest” – Mohammed

90% of the sample experienced problems with sleep and some would spend over 3 hours trying to get to sleep. Inevitably, the lack of sleep can lead onto fatigue, low motivation and reduced concentration. This can have a big effect on these men who have to deal with complex issues and problems.

Social Support Networks

“Everyone is having problem” – Mr Shagar

A work permit in Singapore does not allow the individual to bring any family members with them. They are alone and far from home. 80% expressed that being away from home and missing their family significantly affected their life. For most, it was not just the physical distance that affected them but the emotional disconnectedness they felt. I asked many of the men if they regularly spoke to their families back home and explained their situation in Singapore. For most, this was not an option for them.  Mitun explained that he cannot place the added stress on his family as they will worry even more about money. You can almost feel the burden on his shoulders as he told me that since his father died 3 months ago he is now the sole earner in his family. I enquired further into the death of his father and he could only think about the added financial pressure this has led to. The family is distraught at losing a father and a husband but it is the loss of income which troubles them most. For these men, making money here is the difference between life or death for them and their families. Mitun found it hard to talk about the emotional impact of his own father dying. Despondently, he explained that he couldn’t even go back home to attend the funeral as he had to stay in Singapore to wait for the MOM to sort out his on-going pay dispute. I wonder whether the employer’s know the real impact of their dishonest working practice.

For some, the only support they get is from other struggling workers who are ‘lucky’ enough to be earning the average $30 a day. However, they try not to talk about their problems as,

“there is no point”

Comfort can be found amongst others temporarily where the men find some escapism from their responsibilities and stresses. Particularly on Sunday, these men expressed that they enjoyed the chance to socialize with other workers who have a day off and would ordinarily be working the rest of the week. However, discussions largely centered on light hearted social topics rather than confiding in others about their situations and feelings. The Cuff Road Project was often seen as the relevant forum to speak about their practical problems and sometimes the emotional impact of them. Sharing a problem and discussing emotional well-being (possibly without direct solutions) can in itself be a powerful tool.

Confusion & Uncertainty

“You give money, you make money, then you lose money” – Mitun

These workers are tangled within the complexity of Singaporean employment law and policy. They are from very poor rural backgrounds and have very little educational attainment. It is understandable that migrant workers may not be fully informed of their rights in a new land and this puts them at risk of exploitation from agents and employers.

Mitun for example, had been working in Singapore for 15 months and had never received any pay. He didn’t understand why but kept working anyway as he was promised the money was coming. He didn’t want to jeopardise his job and he had no choice but to keep working or he would be sent back home empty handed with crippling debts. Then one day, he was told not to come back into work. His employer cancelled his work permit. He doesn’t know if it was because he “talked too much at work” and his employer didn’t like him or whether the company had become insolvent. The MOM are looking into the matter but until then, he is stuck, unable to work, with no money. He just doesn’t understand what happened or when he will get his money. Limbo is a very uncertain place at the moment.

It is this uncertainty that epitomizes what these men are experiencing which so negatively impacts their well-being; the unresolved work issues, the lack of pay, the unpaid medical bills, the persistent problem from injuries. Once these men are in the cycle of depression, it is very hard to find the motivation and the energy to deal with the issues that face them. They do not know what will happen from one day to the next, let along what their future may hold. All this seems preventable and unnecessary if employers just treated these men under the same basic conditions that all Singaporeans generally enjoy; regular pay, safe working conditions and being treated with respect and dignity. The only solution to their problem is practical help and getting the money that is owed to them. These are not greedy men; they just want what was contractually promised.

Hopelessness and Hope

“May be I go back home in 10 years, with no money problem” – Rasel

These men have invested so much already to come here so they will return to work as soon as possible despite their experiences. Why? Rasel tells me that he paid $7,000 to the agents to come over from Bangladesh. A year and a half later, he has only earned $3,000.He was told he was going to earn more but his contract changed when he arrived in Singapore. He sold his family land and borrowed money to pay the agents fee. He feels hopeless and does not know when things will improve. His situation is dire and a common occurrence for many. Their experience in Singapore may have stripped them of their dignity yet they still harbor hopes of achieving their dreams. In any case, they cannot go back home with less money than they started. There is still hope in a hopeless situation.

What does the future hold?

These men are from low income backgrounds and are far away from home which already puts them at risk of depression. Coupled with the physical injuries and the associated stresses and lack of support, it is unsurprising that there is such a high rate of depression within this group. Depression and poor emotional well-being can adversely affects their physical recovery and ability to deal with the many complex problems they face. They are caught in the cycle of exploitation, poor health and depression; hope for a change in luck and the support from NGO’s like TWC2 and the Cuff Road project, is the only thing that gets them through.

When times are tough and problems become too great, we all need someone else to speak on our behalf. This is where NGO’s like TWC2 are so important. However, they too like the workers, only have finite resources and funds to deal with the problems. What are desperately needed are more funds and volunteers to provide practical and emotional support for these men. This opens up the options for providing further support groups, education lessons, development of advice pamphlets and more one to one support. The options become endless. In addition to this, there needs to be a change in government policy which protects the rights of these workers and also considers the emotional impact of slow resolution disputes which keep these men in limbo. This would reduce the emotional and financial burden placed so heavily on these men during what is an uncertain period. After all, these are men who contribute to the tapestry of Singaporean life as we know it and deserve to be treated with the same amount of respect and dignity that we all expect.


Anita Mehay came to Singapore from Britain for three months from November 2011. She asked TWC2 if there was anything she could help us with on a voluntary basis. Since she was a  mental health professional, we asked her to conduct a simple study into the mental health situation of the foreign workers who come to TWC2 for help at our Cuff Road Project. Many of these men are kept in limbo for months as they wait for their salary claims, medical treatment, rehabilitation and work injury compensation issues to be concluded. In the meantime, few of them are allowed by the Ministry to Manpower to work. What effect does this enforced period of idleness and penury have on men whose families are depending on them for income? TWC2 asked Anita to enquire into this and the above is her report.